Better Tornado Warnings with Polygons and Pi

Everyone pays close attention to the weather, but for those who live where tornadoes are prevalent, watching the sky can be a matter of life and death. When the difference between making it to a shelter or getting caught in the open can be a matter of seconds, it might make sense to build an internet enabled Raspberry Pi weather alert system.

We know what you’re thinking – why not just buy an off-the-shelf weather alert radio with Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) reporting, or just rely on a smartphone app? As [Jim Scarborough] explains, living in the heart of Tornado Alley and having had a brush with tragedy as a kid teaches you not to be complacent with severe weather. He found a problem with the SAME system: lack of locational granularity below the county level, leading to a tendency to over-warn during tornado season. [Jim]’s build seeks to improve SAME by integrating National Weather Service polygon warnings, which define an area likely to see a severe weather event as a collection of geographic vertices rather than a political unit. He’s using a Raspberry Pi NOAA weather radio receiver with SAME decoding, and while details are sparse and the project is ongoing, the idea seems to be to use the Pi to scrape the NWS site for polygon data once a county-level warning is issued.

It’s an interesting idea, and one we’ll be keeping an eye on as [Jim] continues his build. In the meantime, you can brush up on weather radio and SAME encoding with this Arduino SAME decoder.

[via r/weather]

16 thoughts on “Better Tornado Warnings with Polygons and Pi

  1. While I am no longer much involved in ham radio, I always tune to our local weather net (147.135) when it looks bad. Realtime reports start coming in and with radar this is as good as it gets.

    1. Unless you live in an area like I do where weathernets are a joke of a bunch of old one uppers that believe every scud cloud is an EF5 and the NWS doesn’t even bother collecting their reports half the time….

    1. It is FAR from the Tornado Capital of the World. You get Tornadoes there and Florida comes in as the Top 5 in tornadoes in tornadoes count. They are largely weak Tornadoes. Tampa or FL doesn’t come close to the Top 5 in Killer Tornadoes, Deaths by Tornadoes, Killer Outbrakes, F3 (EF3) and Above, and F4/F5 tornadoes. Sorry. You do have Waterspouts and Tornadoes the are Forming with Hurricanes.

    1. That’s one reason SDR is in development for this project right now. Another is that SDR is $10 or 20 for a receiver, and even better is that the SDR is future-proof for new modulation modes. I’d love to see NWS add RDS to their broadcasts and send the full text of all the messages.

  2. From experience the phone apps are very good for general watches/warnings, and real time visual radar is best if you think things look dicey. Where I live, I’ve watched a funnel cloud pass by and dissipate before the sirens sound – they’re a sign that the danger is over.

  3. I would love to have a warning system. In the area I live, cell phone sucks badly and often time there’s no signal on either Sprint or AT&T. It’s not the tree and the land is mostly flat farmland so no tall building. Just no nearby tower to help with the signal.

    To make things harder, I am deaf and I am lip reader. Conventional radio never works for me and I am rarely using TV. There have been times when I am surprised by unexpected weather change. ie I look outside, it is nice and sunny. I look outside again later, it’s raining cat and dogs.

    1. That sucks, there are satellite phones and some great apps on Android.
      I wish you the best. Where I live there are still some serious dead spots but because there are mountains and valleys.

      There really should be a dependable working system by now, but no. I have the ’emergency alerts’ enabled on my phone but sure enough, the alert went off after the the 12 hours of flood-worthy rainfall. :(

  4. I used to work security a long time ago, back when fax machines were all the rage and the internet was still pretty much a thing for large institutions and research labs. The facility I secured was a large industrial plant with over 300 employees per shift working 3 shifts and weather alerts and getting them to the plant populace were part of the job and tornado’s aren’t terribly common, but not uncommon either.

    The plant management decided to go with a company that claimed to know the precise path of a tornado +/- a couple of miles, and if we were in that path, they would send us a fax with appropriate information not more than 5 minutes before “touch down” as the management did not want the plant “shut down” unless there was at least a “98%” chance of a direct hit on the plant property.

    Another part of the “tornado response plan” was to send security personal to the ROOF of the building on the south west side of the plant property, which also happened to be the tallest, and we would watch the sky for said tornado and issue reports to the head of security who would then CALL, ON THE PHONE the plant manager for a decision as to shutting the plant down and evacuating everyone to shelter rooms and tunnels.

    Well, that spring, a tornado decided to visit and remind everyone that faxes work only if the phone lines work… And since our plant was on the north-east side of town, the phone lines would mostly likely go before any tornados would hit us.
    Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and we evacuated everyone anyway and no one had to go up on the roof in a thunderstorm.
    The tornado was touch and go affair and lifted just before hitting the plant and doing any major damage.

    They still kept the company and the stupid fax machine do to the contract they had, but as time went on, it was apparent that they would always be wrong as the worst of the weather would already be past before the faxes would actually show up.

    But America doesn’t profit by putting workers lives first. Just as no company digs for coal unless its cheaper than natural gas. No one hires for factory jobs when automation has already been installed, Produce isn’t cheap when you don’t pay slave wages to migrant workers. Companies don’t keep their headquarters in the U.S. when you take away the tax breaks because they sure as the fuck ain’t moving production back here, because what’s better for the bottom line?. Just like campaigning on being “anti-establishment” then hiring said establishment as your cabinet before you even take office…..

  5. I am a retired National Weather Service meteorologist. In my exit interview with the NWS I stated how dismayed I was that current off-the-shelf NOAA weather radios did not incorporate National Weather Service polygon area warnings. Therefore I am very pleased to see that Raspberry Pi weather radio systems will trigger based on the radio being located within a warning polygon.

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